Dragonfly Whisperer Whispers

We had no intention of eating lunch in this spot today, but while looking for a mountain to climb, we kept encountering full parking lots and so our backroad meander put us beside a bog at lunch time and voilà, we managed to walk all of less than two tenths of a mile. Total.

But in that short distance, our eyes feasted. First it was all the Painted Turtles basking in the sun.

And then a Grackle flew in with a meal in beak.

I didn’t realize what that meal was until . . .

while expounding on one topic or another of which I’m sure I thought I was the authority, I stopped mid-sentence with a mouth open wide in surprise for upon a tree trunk a newly emerged dragonfly showed off its slowy unfolding wings as it moved back toward the exuviae from which it had just emerged. Why did it move back? I don’t know, but they often cling on nearby as they let their wings dry before flying. It was at that point that my lecture changed focus and suddenly I knew that our being there was important for we were saving this vulnerable being from becoming the Grackle’s dessert.

As for our lunch, my guy found a spot and . . . dined alone. I was beside myself with joy and knew there were more discoveries to make. Thankfully, he has the patience of Job in many situations, and this was one of them.

A brisk breeze blew, which kept the Black Flies at bay, a good thing for us, and perhaps it was also a welcome treat for the dragonflies as they dried their wings in preparation for first flight.

Some managed to keep wings closed over their abdomens, but again, that was another sign of new emergence for as adults, wings are spread while resting.

In the sunshine of the early afternoon, those cloudy, moist wings glistened and offered a rainbow of subtle colors.

Upon a variety of vegetation different species clung in manners of their ancestors until ready for takeoff.

At one point I turned and was surprised to find this friend upon a sapling beside my knees.

And so we began to chat . . . until he’d heard enough and flew off.

But in that same second another flew in even closer, and I just had to find out. Would he or wouldn’t he?

He would and did. Yes, I quietly placed my finger on the leaf and he climbed aboard, then struck a rather relaxed pose.

The Dragonfly Whisperer whispers once more.

My Other Favorite Season Begins

It’s been a yard work kind of weekend for my guy and me, but in the midst of it all, the habitat that this is kept drawing my focus. Oh, I shoveled more piles of dirt than I care to count and shook it down as many times as my guy did to separate the rocks from the loam and raked it all into place and did it all over again for hours on end, but in between I did what I love to do on days such as this. I stalked.

I stalked insects including mimics.

And wee ones like sawflies.

And ants trying to bring spiders home for lunch.

And miniature wasps pausing on blueberry bushes.

And hoverflies seeking nectar from azaleas.

And then. And then. An Eastern Forktail damselfly upon one of those mounds that we were working on.

And then . . . the crème de la crème for the weekend: a female Dot-tailed Whiteface dragonfly.

My other favorite season is officially underway. Bring on the damsels and dragons. And everyone else in between.

Before Spring Leaps Away

Spring. How can it be that she marches in as expected yet takes us by surprise every year? Oh, we expect the buds to burst, flowers to blossom, birds to sing, and all forms of life to give birth, but still . . .

It never grows old to worship her display that transforms our world of winter’s gray and whites to subtle reflections changing with each dawning day.

Life forms long spent hiding in the mud suddenly emerge to bask in the sun.

Some listen dubiously as their male counterparts sing the ok-a-lee songs.

Others tuck into their surroundings, seeking warmth among foliage both old and new.

There are those who weave.

And others who appear to dance upon webs woven.

While fall is most often revered, spring begs to be noticed as more than a novice for as often as autumn occurs does her vernal season come before.

In so doing, she seems to combine the colors of both fringe seasons as if it came naturally. Because . . . it does.

Within seconds of opening her fountains of the future, pollinators find a fine source of nectar.

And those who teach gather to announce a local cooking class.

Into the woods and beside the waters I travel on almost a daily basis and with each tramp, life begs a notice.

Sometimes it’s in the form of a green pretending to be a tree–frog that is.

Other times it’s a female fairy shrimp who doesn’t seek the attention of a male, much to his dismay, because the brood pouch at the base of her abdomen is already full of future life forms.

And there are other signs of the future as seen in spotted salamander embryos forming and mosquito pupa tumbling.

Predators such as the predaceous diving beetle make themselves known because when you stay in the same neighborhood for a period of time, bumps in the road, or pool as it may be, are bound to happen.

Despite such roadblocks, life happens . . . in abundance.

Over and over again, the sunshine above . . .

finds its form in the forest floor below.

Sadly, it’s all so fleeting. I want it to stop. To pause. We’re all in pause mode right now and though we miss so much of the past, the present is a beautiful thing . . . if only we could hold onto it . . . before the spring that marched in leaps away.

Midges I Have Known

Some may be surprised to learn that my friend Midge still shares a bedroom with me. Oh, there was a period of time when our lives were separated, but a few years ago my sister decided that Midge and I need to reconnect and so she made that happen.

My childhood pal, who was also Barbie’s best friend (I never had a Barbie doll–just saying), found her way north. To ward off the cool spring temps, she dons a skirt and headband my mom knitted for her, but I now realize as I gaze upon her disheveled attire how alike we still are. One shoe on, one shoe off. Mussy hair. And that face.

So yeah, I don’t really play with dolls anymore, but I do like having my old friend nearby–maybe because she reminds me of a childhood well spent with family and neighbors. It was one that included playing with dolls and playing outside. And that outdoor play and discovery is still a huge part of my life. Thus it was that this afternoon found me heading to the vernal pool out back and noticing an insect pupating on a pine I often pass by. What is it? I don’t know. When did it find this spot upon which to attach? I don’t know. I swear, I walk by this spot every few days and it had not made itself known previously. But look at the structure. WOW.

I finally left it behind and journeyed on to the vernal pool that I wish could be listed as significant for this year it supports way more than 40 wood frog masses and certainly more than 20 spotted salamander egg masses. Either of those would deem it important, but . . . it appears to have been created to support the farm life of old, rather than being a natural pool. Still, to me it will always be significant for its taught me so much over the years.

You might laugh to see that I get excited about any form of life within the pool including the mosquito larvae.

They really are everywhere within the water column.

But even more importantly, my babies were swimming . . .

and feeding, including on the green algae that served a symbiotic relationship with their egg masses. If you look closely at this photo, you may notice other lives worth acknowledging.

Meanwhile, the spotted salamander embryos were developing at their own rate of life.

And then I began to look at another: the larval form of a Chironomid Midge. To get a sense of its size, notice the tiny birch seed floating on the water’s surface.

Like the mosquitoes in their larval form, the midges are also contortionists who wriggle and wraggle through the water column.

And then they morph into flying insects.

Although from what I noticed today, there wasn’t much flying taking place. Instead it seemed like the oak leaf that floated on the pool’s surface served as a place for males and females to get to know each other, much like my friend Midge may have met her boyfriend, Alan.

To better understand the size of the midges, note the half inch length of the hemlock needle I drew a line around.

Life at the Oak Leaf Bar got a little more interesting when Alan’s friend stepped onto the scene.

First she was going after Alan 1 and then it seemed that Alan 2 pursued her, while her little sister, Skipper, showed up as an even smaller fly species.

At last, Midge made a choice.

And the canoodling began.

But at the Beech Leaf Bar two other Midges toyed with another Alan.

And tada–more canoodling.

And then at Oak Leaf Bar Too, even more drama played out.

He inquired about her well being and seemed to find it quite healthy.

At last they pulled apart, much to the liking of their nearby friends.

It seemed after that meeting that all the Alans convened.

Each postured and claimed a somewhat dominate position.

And then two of the four Alans turned on one.

And the sibling rivalry began.

Bodies crossed and legs interacted.

Two duked it out while the other two moved on.

In the end, each went its own way, but I suspect that after I moved on they met again. And again.

In the same way I again met my friend Midge. And again realized our similarities including the shared name of our guys despite their different spellings.

Midge, along with Skipper, a doll I also had but seemed to have lost, was apparently created to counteract criticism that claimed Barbie was a sex symbol. After watching today’s midges, I have to wonder . . . I’ve never met a canoodling Barbie in the insect world. Just maybe the Midges I have known aren’t second fiddle after all.

Firsts of May

Spring springs forth each year and yet I always find myself greeting its gifts as if for the first time. Such was my journey today as I met a few old friends along a path near, you guessed it, a wetland.

My first moment of awe occurred beside a Beaked Hazelnut. These are the first of the shrubs to flower with their teeny tiny magenta ribbons that may look large because I zoomed in with my lens, but typically the petals fall off as the leaves emerge. And so it was with great joy that I could honor this particular flower today and note that said flowers will eventually become the beaked fruits filled with the most desirable of nuts. And those new leaves–oh my. They were a close match for the flowers in gaining my attention.

And then in the shadows I saw another who garners notice in every stage of its development as well. Those pleated leaves. That crazy beautiful flower structure.

In the sun’s rays, another Hobblebush showed off its incredible flowerhead taking more shape with larger sterile flowers on the outer edge and the smaller fertile flowers just beginning to gain their shape.

And if that wasn’t enough, as is the situation along many a trail right now, an American Beech cotyledon sported its embryonic leaves. Okay, so this was the second day in a row that I saw such, but still . . . it’s always worth celebrating.

The lower set of leathery embyronic leaves remind me of a butterfly and appear before the tree’s true leaves make themselves known. Part of what intrigues me about these seed leaves is that they contain stored food. Eventually these food stores will wither and fall off.

I also love how the word cotyledon (cot·y·le·don \ ˌkä-tə-ˈlē-dᵊn ) flows off my tongue, much like marcescent, which describes the leaves of this same tree that cling, wither and rattle all winter long.

There was more for everywhere I looked a variety of fern crosiers sprouted from the ground, this particular array belonging to either cinnamon or interrupted for they both are similar at this stage. The morning was cool, but it appears that this fern has it covered–literally, with a hairy coating for its head and legs and a cape styled by an errant leaf.

As if that wasn’t enough, another tiny flower showed off its stamen-studded head. You’ve heard of Goldilocks. Meet Goldthread.

It wasn’t just the shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns that begged to be noticed, however. My only wish is that I could share sound and action with you, but in its place, color. First I bring to you a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

And then a Blue-headed Vireo.

There were also Common Yellowthroats, Hermit Thrushes, Phoebes, and so many more. But the Blue-headed had my eye. Don’t you love its eye?

I was almost done with my tramp when I spotted one that I know going forth I’ll photograph a trillion times. Is there a problem with having a trillion photographs of trillium? My guy thinks so, but . . . I don’t agree. And so today I began by honoring Stinking Benjamin, aka Red Trillium, with the first photos of the season.

There was all that and then . . . on the way home a bird beside the road caused me to back up. One can do that in western Maine. This American Woodcock and I spent a few minutes together, but just when it turned to show off its long beak two cars whizzed by and it scampered into the undergrowth. Perhaps we’ll meet again, but if not, I was grateful for the opportunity.

On this sixth day of the month I gave thanks for the firsts of May.

Bugged by the Otherworldy

There was a time when insects bugged me. Apparently, I’m long beyond that for though I morn the loss of snow and tracking season, I can’t wait for insect season to begin. Ah yes, that is, except for the blackflies, aka Maine’s state bird, or so they should be. But even the blackflies I can endure because I know that they provide food for actual birds and for other insects such as dragonflies. By now, you’re probably thinking I’m about to present a series of dragonfly shots. Not today, but that day will be upon us very soon for in the natural world everything seems to be on time and there is no such thing as The Pause.

Pause, however, I did beside another wetland setting today in a spot where my boots slowly sunk down into the sphagnum moss for the longer I stood the deeper they went, and the stoneflies crawled, their veined wings showing off a stained-glassed window naturally.

If you look closely at the tip of the abdomen that curves out from under the wings, you may see the cerci or paired appendages. They are one of the clues to identification and sighting stoneflies is a great thing because they are intolerant of water pollution.

Of course, when one is looking one sees . . . caddisflies everywhere, though because I was in a different wetland habitat today as compared to yesterday’s vernal pool journey, the shelter of choice differed. Notice how this caddisfly’s home resembles the equisetum upon which it climbs.

But at the risk of boring you with too many caddisfly photos, I moved on (after taking too many caddisfly photos). About an inch to the left, that is. And that’s when I spied a mayfly larva with cerci of three. The thing with mayflies–they can have two or three tails. At this stage mayflies are called nymphs or naiads.

Eventually I made my way over to some false hellebores and what should I spy at the tip of one? A teenager! Well, not exactly, but the subimago or dun form of a newly emerged dragonfly. Notice the cloudiness of its wings–a clue that it isn’t an imago or adult. Mayflies are the only insects that I know of which also molt as adults. Once the final molt occurs, the clear-winged adult will live for a day or two, mate, lay eggs, and then become part of the detritus upon which they fed as nymphs.

Checking the next false hellebore was worth it not only to embrace the design of the ribbed leaves, but hiding within–yes, another subimago.

Again, the cloudy wings were the giveaway.

At a different spot along the water’s edge, a giant of sorts scanned the scene in hopes of snagging a meal. Yesterday I looked for giant water bugs. Today I found not one, but two. My next hope is that someday I’ll get to see a male carrying the nursery his mate deposits upon his back.

But then another sight forced me back into the world of the mayflies for I spotted the exuviae or cast skin of . . . a mayfly larva. Can you see where it split at the top (bottom actually) of the structure.

And just a few inches away, the one who had just emerged from aquatic life . . .

found its feet and began to march toward a new life . . .

as it tried out its balance in the terrestrial world.

Being bugged by insects is one of my favorite ways to be. Even if there are some who annoy or predate, they are all still worthy of our wonder for they each bring something to the natural world–otherworldly or otherwise.

Aqua World

It’s never the same, any visit to a wetland or vernal pool, and such was the case today when I got my feet wet in three different aquatic habitats.

The first was at the edge of a wetland that borders a local lake and it was there that the crazy little springtails taught me a lesson.

I’d gone to see what I might see and first it was a spider, mosquito larva and a few springtails that caught my eye.

But then, I began to notice white springtails floating across the watery surface. Oh, and a water bug of sorts climbing a submerged twig.

For a bit my focus turned to the latter as I noticed his antennae and legs.

And for a second, I considered him to be a small grasshopper, but that didn’t make sense for he was in the water, after all. For now, he’ll remain a mystery until I gain a further understanding.

But then I turned back to the springtails in pure white form. They didn’t move. How could that be? Was I missing something? Or were they actually the molted skins of some of the slate-colored ones that did jump about? My later learning: Some springtails can molt up to forty times, leaving behind white exuviae. After each molt, the springtails look the same.

While watching them, something else caught my eye–a small circle . . . with a thousand legs.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a millipede in the water before. Moist places like our basement, yes. But swimming? Perhaps I just haven’t paid attention.

Or perhaps all the rain that graced our world yesterday caught this one by surprise.

With that find, it was time for me to take my leave.

But my next stop brought pride to my heart.

And I found myself promising a hundred million tadpoles that I will keep an eye on them since their parents have left the nursery unattended. As their surrogate mother, I’m going to worry each day and pray the water doesn’t dry up, the garter snake doesn’t return, and that these little ones will be able to mature and hop out.

A little further on at another vernal pool I met more caddisfly larvae than I ever remember meeting before.

Each sported a log cabin built of shredded plant material and I got to thinking about how they carry their houses with such agility.

Each is a wee bit different and some are messier structures than others. As I watched, one actually flipped over a few times and I finally realized it was adding another layer to the building.

A few took it upon themselves to meet at a social closeness we’ve come to avoid of late, for this one long structure is actually three sharing the same space.

Even the mosquito wrigglers, such as the one in the upper-right-hand corner, captured my sense of awe today. And all of these species got me thinking about their good works. Most feed on algae, detritus and other organic material, so yes, even mosquito larva should be celebrated.

Aqua World–it’s a wonder how it works.